Recorder Facts

15 Interesting Facts About The Recorder

A lot of people recognise the recorder from their early days at school. Compared to other musical instruments, it mostly resembles a child’s toy rather than something you make actual music with. But however some might put it, the recorder is a real musical instrument, and it has a long and interesting history backing up its legitimacy. That said, here are a few intriguing facts about this rather curious instrument that you might know about. 

Recorder Facts

1. The instrument’s name used to make sense.

Recorder Facts

Right now, its name doesn’t sound sensical, doesn’t it? But back in its early history, the name “recorder” did make sense because it came from the Latin recordari, meaning “to recall” or “remember.” People considered it a good instrument for “recording,” which back then actually meant “to practice.” It’s only during the modern age that we started associating the word “recording” with something technological. 

2. It makes a notable appearance in a Shakespearean play.

That play was Hamlet. During the third act, Hamlet asks a character named Guildenstern to play it for him. When the latter refuses, Hamlet says “Tis as easy as lying.” What this means is that Hamlet refers to a time when Guildenstern fooled him and then asks whether it is easier for Guildenstern to play the instrument than him for a fool. 

Recorder Facts

3. Shakespeare also used the recorder to produce “incidental” music in some of his plays.

The most notable ones are Hamlet, as mentioned previously, and the classic humor-filled A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was due to its massive popularity during Shakespeare’s time. The world’s most famous playwright using the world’s most famous musical instrument: now that’s a combination.

4. The infamous King Henry VIII was an avid collector of recorders.

Recorder Facts

Often more famous for his failed marriages and his weight rather than his musical ability, Henry VIII did have a certain amount of musical talent as a composer. It was a hobby for him, which led him to collect around 76 recorders before his death in 1547. And he didn’t let them collect dust in storage, either: he actually played them!

5. The word “recorder” was originally used to refer to a flute.

The French changed the name “recorder” to “flute” in the 1600s. The word “flute” itself, however, did refer to a recorder as we know it today but wasn’t actually a word until it was first used in an English poem titled The House of Fame by Geoffrey Chaucer. And when the modern flute popped up, there came a clear distinction between flutes and recorders. 

6. The largest fully functioning recorder ever made was as tall as a giraffe when propped up.

It is 16 feet (5 metres) long and has holes about 3.3 inches (8.5 centimetres) wide each. It is so large that despite being fully functional, it would be almost impossible to play correctly.

7. It was an instrument meant for kings and nobility.

You might consider a recorder as a child’s toy nowadays, but back in the 16th Century, the best wind musicians were playing recorders to monarchs and upper-class households all around Europe. Not bad for something that looks like a toy now, eh? 

8. The modern flute technically “killed” the recorder.

Recorders were very popular back in the day, but they had a very limited range. This is why flutes eventually overtook recorders in orchestras by the 19th Century because the latter can’t compete with the strong, piercing sound that comes from a flute. You barely see recorders in a modern orchestra because of this, although this has not appeared to harm the instrument’s popularity, thankfully. 

Recorder Facts

9. A bunch of early music enthusiasts saved the recorder from certain extinction.

Recorder Facts

If not for the efforts of some people and several institutions who are interested in pre-classical music, the recorder would’ve been phased out completely. They put up events and performances, such as the one during the 1885 International Inventions Exhibition where old instruments were displayed and played in several concerts. 

10. A recorder orchestra is a sight to behold due to the number of instruments needed.

If you’re going to put up a strict recorder orchestra, you’ll need at least 60 individual musicians. And each of them will have to carry and play at least 9 different recorders, all different sizes, interchangeably. That’s at least 540 individual instruments. Imagine having to account for all of that before, during, and after a performance! 

11. It was a staple of classical music, far from its toy-like reputation today.

During the Baroque Period from 1600 to 1750, the recorder was at the highest pedestal of all music; it was a classical staple. Notable composers such as Handel, Vivaldi, and even Bach were all writing recorder parts for their compositions. It was even being used during operas. 

12. Recorders both barely changed and changed a lot throughout history.

If that doesn’t make sense, let us explain. The recorder is such an old instrument, that it has enough significance to ward off any extremely major redesigns. It still retains the basics: a whistle mouthpiece, seven finger holes, and thumb hole. The construction methods, however, did change, and they changed a lot. 

13. Prisoners of war were given recorders to play to help ease them.

This was particularly done for soldiers in the RAF who were held prisoner by the Germans during WW2. The recorders they were given were the first plastic ones (made of cellulose acetate), manufactured in England by Schott & Co. 

14. The sound of a recorder used to represent the supernatural.

During the times when people didn’t have much science, and almost everything was attributed to the supernatural, the recorder’s music symbolised this human fascination with the unexplained. The notable composers who explored this were Purcell and Handel, among many others.

Recorder Facts

15. People attempted to “modernise” the recorder by introducing radical re-designs.

Recorder Facts

There was one attempt by a musician and composer named Michael Barker, which he called a “midfield blockflute.” His original intent was to make a modernised recorder by combining its traditional aspects with electronically synthesized sounds. There are other attempts as well, but Barker’s was the most known. 

That's the end of our Recorder Facts... So what now?

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